Rene Ortiz got his first taste of critical incident management while serving in the military. More than 20 years later, he returned to school to earn two degrees to advance in this growing field.

Just turn on your television and you'll see why emergency management is becoming a growing career field. If it's not blizzards, flooding or tornadoes in the Midwest on the news, it's drought and wild fires out West, or hurricanes in the South or East.

"There have always been hurricanes and weather disasters, but in these modern times they are more aggressive and cause more damage," says Rene Ortiz, a recent graduate of Saint Leo University's online master's in critical incident management program.

When natural disasters strike, it is increasingly important for law enforcement, first responders, government officials and aid organizations to understand how to manage those critical incidents, mitigate hazards, identify risks, and provide help to people impacted.

First emergency experience: flooding

It was severe flooding in Panama due to an extreme monsoon season in 1993 that first opened Ortiz's eyes to the world of emergency management. He was on active duty in the U.S. Army and was stationed in Panama at the time.

"Five to six miles away from the base, a small town suffered flooding—kind of like what Katrina did to New Orleans but on a smaller scale," recalls Ortiz.

"The local government was overwhelmed by the damage done to property, homes and schools. They called the U.S. military, and we provided logistical support—heavy equipment bulldozers to clear homes and damaged roads, big vehicles to transport people away from damaged areas, food and water, and sandbags to prevent water from getting into certain areas. It was my first experience dealing with a critical, emergency incident."

Ortiz's military career took him to Korea five times and to Iraq in the First Gulf War and again in the latest conflict. He worked in petroleum logistics, providing fuel to keep the Army's tanks, armored vehicles, and helicopters running. While stationed at Fort Lee in Virginia, Hurricane Katrina ripped through New Orleans, and his unit provided tankers of fuel to the city.

After 20 years on active duty, he retired and became a military contractor, training the next generation of soldiers. But his experiences helping communities recover from natural disasters stuck with him, and his interest in emergency management continued to grow.

Why choose Saint Leo

Ortiz first returned to school to obtain a bachelor's degree in criminal justice from Saint Leo University. He earned the degree through a program that combined both online courses with courses at Saint Leo's Fort Lee Education Center. Next, Ortiz decided to pursue an online master's degree in critical incident management. He started the master's degree program in 2012 and completed it two years later.

"I chose Saint Leo because they're flexible. The university caters to soldiers and the military community," Ortiz says.

When he started the online-only master's degree program, he was concerned about not feeling as if he were part of a classroom community. But that concern soon dissipated.

"Once I took my first class online, I realized it felt the same as being in the classroom," he says. "There's lots of opportunity for student participation. And since classes aren't too big, students can interact with each other. You post assignments and questions online. The work was intense—I sometimes had six to eight hours of work a week. It was challenging and I liked it."

Learning from expert professionals

Ortiz also liked that his professors were all highly experienced. For example, one professor was a former FBI agent who also had handled security at the Super Bowl in Miami.

"I knew the teachers had all the qualifications to teach not only out of textbooks, but they also had the practical experience out there in the real world. All of the professors were like that, and all of them had PhDs," Ortiz says.

Career-relevant curriculum

During the two-year, 36-credit critical incident management online master's degree program, Ortiz took courses that covered topics such as public policy; critical incident management responses at the local, state, and federal level; laws and regulations that impact emergency management; and how the private sector comes into play.

Additional critical incident management courses covered financial management, organizational leadership, psychological and sociological aspects of catastrophic events, and management of critical incident operations and personnel.

Ortiz was particularly interested in a course that focused on terrorist attacks and foreign policy as it relates to emergency management.

"Because I served in the military and was in class with a lot of other students who were also former military, in classroom discussions, we talked about being deployed the last few years during the war. I experienced the same thing, being in Iraq and witnessing that on a personal level. I could relate to my classmates and their experiences," Ortiz says.

Keeping Saint Leo in the family

From the time Ortiz began thinking about getting a college degree and even after he enrolled, the Saint Leo staff at the Fort Lee Education Center helped guide him through how things worked.

"It really motivated me that they were there in the beginning. It made me feel comfortable. They're the reason I was able to complete a bachelor's and then make the decision to go back and complete a master's," Ortiz says.

Now that he has his master's degree, Ortiz is job hunting. He wants to secure employment with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), a state emergency management agency, or a private organization that deals with disaster relief.

And Ortiz enjoyed his experience at Saint Leo so much, that he often tells other young soldiers he works with about the university and encourages them to get a college education. He also recommended Saint Leo to his daughter—who will be enrolling at the university next year.

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